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The Authority of the Bible

CHAPTER 6: The Question of Semantics

One of the issues that arises when authority is placed upon the Bible is the difficulty of semantics. In other words how we understand and treat words and whether words have any inherent limitations. This is especially relevant when we come to the Bible because it was written a long time ago, in many very different cultures, and has been translated from languages which in the forms used are now archaic. It is especially relevant for churches such as the Christadelphians which are restorationist in belief and therefore do not see in the preservation of Christianity any accompanying oral traditions and do not believe in inner understanding being given by God. Everything in essence comes down to our ability to understand the Bible which is of course words.

We therefore need a consideration of both language and how language works. The first point to note is that words do not have fixed meanings. If you take a dictionary and you look up a word what you find is that listed against it are a number of other words which have similar meanings. Words therefore have shades of meaning, the exact meaning of each word being determined by its context and the intent of the speaker. Understanding what people mean and what they are trying to convey is therefore reliant upon empathy not just a fixed meaning of words. How language works in practice is called the semantic pragmatics of language and people who have a difficulty with it are said to have a semantic-pragmatic

 language disorder or SPLD. This is commonly associated with autism and Aspergers Syndrome. Aspergers Syndrome is particularly worthy of some thought because people with the syndrome are said to be “high functioning.” Those who have conventional autism usually have associated difficulties and cannot live unsupported by others, whereas people with Aspergers often have above average intelligence. In fact one expert, Tony Attwood, has claimed a certain amount can aid high achievement in many fields. People with Aspergers can understand language in either more rigid or more fluid ways. It is also acknowledged that there is an autistic scale or spectrum that goes from “normal” to “autistic.” In fact a huge number of people with Aspergers would resent any suggestion that they are not normal and prefer to see it as a case of neurological difference. In other words as humans we have a broad spectrum of being which affects how we understand language and each other. To put it simply we all understand language slightly differently to each other based upon our personality.

This leaves us with huge scope for misunderstanding each other which is well understood by the legal profession which centres around words and their meanings. This is why the legal profession tries to more tightly define words as do legal contracts. They seek to eliminate as far as possible shades of meaning. Even then the exact meanings of words has to be determined in individual court cases which tighten the interpretations and lead to what is called “case law.”

In normal conversation with each other we have some advantages over the written word. This is because a huge amount of communication is related to non verbal factors such as tone of voice, posture, inflexions in our voice and facial expressions. All these are lost in the written form. In addition when we speak to others and perceive we are being misunderstood it is more easy and immediate to correct any misperceptions. This is why good communication involves the form of a dance with both output and response and with a need for careful listening and empathy. In reading the Bible we cannot get extra feedback from the writers. That means understanding such things as culture and context is necessarily more involved and there is greater scope for error.

Words don’t just have shades of meanings attached to them, the scales of meaning themselves change with time. The language we use today is very different to what people used hundreds of years ago. Modern Greek and Hebrew are very different languages to Biblical Greek and Hebrew. We understand words based upon our upbringing and exposure to them, so people in different areas have slightly different usages. In addition there is a need to express new ideas, new concepts which existing words don’t fulfil. Some meanings get lost, some words get dropped, some grammatical principles don’t get upheld. One interesting fact related to people with Aspergers is their ability to create new words. The point here is this. Language changes. Dictionaries have to be updated. Over time this leads to significant changes in language. To translate the Bible is not a simple job. People have to explore the ancient meanings of languages as well as the semantics involved in them.

In addition when we translate from one language to another the languages do not exactly correspond with other. There isn’t direct correlation. These principles are well recognised by Bible translators and it’s interesting to read the forewords and basis upon which they make a translation. Some try to translate as far as possible word for word which is called formal equivalence, others try to translate thought for 

thought which is called dynamic equivalence. Translators themselves acknowledge all methods are imperfect and have limitations, so no translation can ever be an exact replication of what the writer said.

To some extent unless we can study all these disciplines and angles involved we ourselves are inevitably limited when we come to the Bible if it is God’s method.

Many historical Christadelphian positions have also been based upon arguments about the root meanings of words in the Bible. It has been claimed that the bias of the writers affected the words they used. So for instance we should look at the root meanings of words such as “the devil” and “hell fire” and “hell.” The suggestion is the words that are in place were used by the translators because of what they believed and create misleading impressions for us. This has been admitted in certain cases by the translators themselves. For instance the King James Version specifically left ecclesiastical terms in place such as bishop. Some modern translations have also translated hell as grave in many instances.

Once we look at all the elements involved we can see that understanding what the writers of the Bible were saying and what they meant is a progressive and long-term examination with a huge number of factors that need consideration. For a church to claim it has worked it all out and everyone else has had it wrong is a pretty bold claim.






Christadelphian Quotes

You lay a great stress upon facts throughout your letters, and are incessant in your demand that I should attend to them. This is good; but facts have to be rightly put together, and then you must have all the facts. I do not think you put the facts rightly together, and you leave out some, I am sure.

(Robert Roberts, a Christadelphian Pioneer, quoted

by Ruth McHaffie in Brethren Indeed)

The Spirit of liberty, based upon the law of faith, is the Spirit of Christ; and this spirit all the Sons of God are privileged to possess, and having it, to breathe. I claim the right of exercising this privilege, as well as my contemporaries; and I require of them that they should do to me as once they loudly required others to do to them…

(written by John Thomas, the founder of the Christadelphians, when he was against creeds in 

The Apostolic Advocate magazine, August 1836)

(John Thomas, from Apostacy Unveiled, p. 137,

quoted in The Christadelphian Magazine, January 1906)

Must a man never progress? If he discovers an error in his premises, must he for ever hold to it for the sake of consistency? May such a calamity never befall me! Rather let me change every day, till I get right at last.

(from a letter written by John Thomas in 1848, quoted by Robert Roberts, in Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work)

Do what is right; be valiant for the Truth; teach it without compromise, and all lovers of the Truth will approve you. For all others you need not care a rush!

(from a letter written by John Thomas to Robert Roberts and published in The Christadelphian magazine, February 1866)